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A policeman guards a security post leading into a center locals say is used for political indoctrination in Korla in western China's Xinjiang region, Nov. 2, 2017.

Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press

China is attempting to legitimize political indoctrination centres for Uyghur Muslims in the far western Xinjiang region, less than two months after denying the existence of such centres.

The country had maintained that Uyghurs, who have been interned and forced to recite Communist ideology, were merely being provided skills training. The dismissal by Chinese authorities that these camps exist contrasted with both accounts of former detainees and the published work of local scholars, who have described efforts at “mind repair” in Xinjiang.

Now, a new expanded version of the region’s “de-extremification” law specifically authorizes the establishment of “occupational skills education and training centres and other such education and transformation bodies” that can be used “to conduct education and transformation for persons influenced by extremism.”

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Such centres should teach the “national spoken and written language,” Chinese law, occupational skills and counterextremist ideology to enable psychological “rehabilitation” and “promote ideological conversion of those receiving education and training,” the regulation says.

Observers called the change a retroactive attempt to authorize a system that has already, foreign scholars estimate, swept up hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps as many as a million. Although political indoctrination in Xinjiang is long-standing, authorities began to open large numbers of new facilities dedicated to that work last year.

“The changes mark the deepening of the legalization and standardization of anti-extremism work in Xinjiang,” Zhu Weiqun, former head of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee under the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, told the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid.

China has yet to formally acknowledge the mass-indoctrination system, or provide details of its size. But the “revisions add a veneer of legitimacy to the establishment of the education centres,” said Jeremy Daum, research fellow with the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School. He is also the contributing founder of China Law Translate, which provided an English version of the amendments.

Still, he said, the changes do not provide grounds for detaining people without cause. “There is still no basis for mass detentions. Other legal authority out of Xinjiang has made clear that vocational education is a form of detention, but it goes beyond the scope of China’s existing penal laws.”

In August, Chinese officials speaking to the United Nations committee on the elimination of racial discrimination rejected accusations that Muslims are being placed without charge into mass-indoctrination centres designed to combat religious adherence.

“There is no arbitrary detention or lack of freedom of religious belief,” Hu Lianhe, deputy director general of the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, said in August.

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But in writings published by Chinese journals, domestic experts on Xinjiang describe an educational push concentrated on ideological instruction, one that likens extremism to cancer and counts secularization as success.

The Globe and Mail reviewed a series of academic articles from recent years to understand how local scholars, many of them Communist Party officials, have described government priorities in Xinjiang, where China has said it is battling an outbreak of radicalism. Some of their writing points to poverty as a key factor in fostering extremism, emphasizing that for people to “get rich” is an important way to ensure social stability.

But they also provide new insights into the “education and transformation” indoctrination system that has been used to intern people in facilities that resemble prisons, with high walls topped with razor wire visible in satellite imagery. Muslims placed into those facilities, including ethnic Kazakhs, have described being told to praise the Communist Party and President Xi Jinping while repeatedly saying that religious belief is stupid.

Their accounts match with a description of “ideological education” that Shen Hui, vice-president of the Aksu Party School, called a “mind-repair” project.

The February, 2016, article for the Journal of Yili Prefecture Communist Party Institute, “A brief Discussion about De-Extremification Work in Xinjiang,” describes a turning point in the region, away from an exclusively militaristic response to terrorism and toward an educational one.

“The fight against separatism in Xinjiang has entered a new stage, which is more complicated and intense than before. The tussle to gain ground in this ’soft power’ battle has become fierce,” he wrote.

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In another 2016 article for the Journal of Xinjiang Normal University, China Academy of Social Sciences scholar Ma Dazheng described extremist thought as a “malignant cancerous tumour” that “could endanger the social stability of Xinjiang.”

The priority, he wrote, should be to “guide society on which things it should think about and which it should abandon.”

That scholarship was published not long before authorities in Xinjiang began the dramatic expansion of the region’s system of internment for political indoctrination.

A June, 2017, article in New Silk Road, a state-run journal of social sciences, was published in the early phase of that expansion. Written by Qiu Yuanyuan who, online records say, works for the administrative department of the Xinjiang Party School, it provides one of the clearest Chinese descriptions of the internment and indoctrination system.

It was written by Qiu Yuanyuan who, online records say, works for the administrative department of the Xinjiang Party School. Ms. Qiu did not answer phone calls for comment.

But in her paper, she describes an “imperative” to educate people “whose cases don’t constitute crimes,” and makes repeated reference to families of “targeted individuals.”

She also cites a survey conducted in four Xinjiang cities among 588 people who had either completed or were in the “late stages of their transformation.” Some 94.4 per cent of those professed belief in Chinese law above religious adherence, and 98.8 per cent showed an ability to “recognize their faults and spot illegal religion.”

The paper describes a series of outcomes that include “leaving behind religion,” said Kevin Carrico, a lecturer in Chinese studies at Australia’s Macquarie University.

“We are clearly not talking here about some friendly vocational service,” he said.

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